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Florida’s Hard Road to Success Outside the Major Party System




With Governor Charlie Crist pondering a bid for U.S. Senate as a No Party Affiliation candidate, now seems like a good time to take a look back at the history of third party and independent candidates in Florida.

Excluding the seemingly miraculous election of ex-Baptist minister Sidney J. Catts, the colorful “Cracker Messiah” who was swept into the governor’s mansion on the tiny Prohibition Party ticket in 1916, voters in the Sunshine State have never been particularly friendly to statewide candidates running outside the traditional “two-party system.”

For most of the twentieth century, Florida’s legislature proved even more hostile than the voters, making it virtually impossible for independent or third-party candidates to appear on the statewide ballot for any office other than president. Incredibly, between 1924 and 1998 — the year Florida citizens overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment wiping out the state’s mandatory petition requirements and making ballot access considerably easier for minor parties and independent candidates — only one third-party candidate appeared on the Florida ballot in a gubernatorial or senatorial contest.

That little-remembered candidate was John L. Grady, a physician and the former mayor of Belle Glade who waged a seemingly quixotic campaign for the U.S. Senate on the American Party ticket during the Watergate year of 1974.

Grady’s uphill candidacy for the seat vacated by indicted Republican Sen. Edward J. Gurney, a staunch Nixon defender, was nothing short of astounding, beginning with the Herculean task of obtaining 105,000 valid signatures on the party’s petitions.

Remarkably, the American Party — an ultraconservative offshoot of George C. Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign — collected more than 130,000 signatures to earn a spot on the ballot that year.

Though unable to keep pace with the fundraising prowess of Democrat Richard Stone and the deep pockets of drugstore multimillionaire Jack Eckerd, the Republican nominee, the 43-year-old former mayor of the small, poverty-stricken town of Belle Glade made up for his lack of resources by waging a breathtakingly vigorous cattscampaign, stumping in every region of the state. He carried rural Hardee and Hendry counties and finished ahead of one of his major-party rivals in more than a dozen others while garnering 282,659 votes, or nearly 16 percent — enough, some believed, to cost the GOP the election.

Grady’s spectacular effort notwithstanding, one of the most potentially viable independent campaigns during that period might have been one that was never waged — the short-lived U.S. Senate candidacy of former state Senator Lori Wilson of Cocoa Beach in 1980.

A dynamic and popular vote-getter who had twice defeated Democratic and Republican opposition in the early 1970s to become the only independent ever elected to the Florida Senate, Wilson’s marriage to millionaire publisher and USA Today founder Al Neuharth presumably put her in a position to self-finance at least a modest statewide effort in 1980. “We’ll spend what we can afford to spend,” she said.

A former Republican, Wilson was the only person to win a seat in the Florida legislature outside the traditional two-party structure since 1908, when the Socialist Party’s C. C. Allen, a St. Petersburg lawyer, was reelected to a second term.

Running as an independent, Lori Wilson, herself a Merritt Island lawyer and ex-Brevard County commissioner, defeated three rivals in a 1972 special election to win a seat in the State Senate, becoming the only woman in that chamber. Defeating challengers from both major parties, she was reelected to a full four-year term in 1974.

Unfortunately, Wilson’s U.S. Senate campaign lasted only a few months. She gave up the ghost shortly after failing to overturn a state requirement that an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate needed three times as many signatures as an independent presidential candidate. In dropping out of the race, the former Cocoa Beach legislator conceded that it was impossible to obtain the 126,516 signatures necessary to place her name on the November ballot. Florida’s draconian ballot access laws, she said in a parting shot, denied “freedom of choice” to the voters while favoring the established parties.

While the state’s burdensome ballot access barriers were effectively removed with the passage of Revision Eleven in 1998, recent history shows that Floridians generally continue turn a cold shoulder to candidates who dare to venture outside the traditional parties in major statewide races.

Ten years ago, state Rep. Willie F. Logan of Miami-Dade, named by the Miami Herald as one of the legislature’s most effective members only a few years earlier, tried his luck at cracking Florida’s duopoly, but fared poorly.

A rising star in state Democratic politics, the 43-year-old Logan had been his party’s designated Speaker of the House — the first African-American tapped for that powerful post since Reconstruction — before being unceremoniously dumped from his leadership position by his party’s caucus in January 1998 in favor of Anne Mackenzie, a veteran white legislator from Fort Lauderdale. Logan’s supporters claimed that his ouster was racially motivated — a charge vehemently denied by Democratic leaders.

Logan, who represented one of the state’s poorest districts during his eighteen years in the Florida House, didn’t take kindly to being ambushed by his fellow Democratic lawmakers and boldly displayed his displeasure by endorsing Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush against his own party’s Buddy MacKay later that year.

The longtime lawmaker, who had been elected mayor of Opa-Locka when he was barely 23, apparently harbored a bull-sized taste for revenge. In the fall of 1999, he formally threw his hat in the ring for the U.S. Senate and within a few months had raised nearly $200,000 — an auspicious beginning for a candidate running outside the bounds of the traditional parties.

Taking his cue from Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura, Logan hired Bill Hillsman, the brilliant Minneapolis media consultant who had produced the hilariously offbeat television ads that catapulted the colorful Reform Party candidate past his major-party rivals and into the governor’s office in 1998. Hillsman believed he had another winner. “Willie is so far ahead of where Gov. Ventura was at this point in 1998 that it’s hard to even make the comparison,” he said early in the campaign.

Logan, who eventually spent $364,554 on his long-shot candidacy, also took a page from the “Walkin’ Lawton” playbook, but instead of walking 1,000 miles across the state he donned a helmet and hopped on a motorcycle. Logan’s gimmickry seemed appropriate given the fact that he was running for the same U.S. Senate seat in which the late Lawton Chiles, clad in dusty boots with holes in the soles, had made his legendary 1,003-mile trek across Florida three decades earlier.

Crisscrossing the state on a Yamaha motorcycle, it wasn’t long before the African-American legislator was polling double-digits in Florida’s hotly-contested U.S. Senate race. In early March, the prestigious Florida Poll showed Logan garnering 10 percent of the vote against his likely major-party opponents in November.

Logan’s unexpected inclusion in the final statewide televised debate between Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Bill McCollum led many pundits to believe that the free-spirited state representative would be a major factor in the election’s outcome. He thought so, too.

“This is America. I can win,” he confidently declared.

On Election Day, Logan, who had consistently polled between 5 and 10 percent of the vote in statewide surveys, ran worse than anyone imagined, garnering a disappointing 80,820 votes, or 1.4 percent.

Four years ago, Florida’s U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections attracted an abundance of independent and minor-party hopefuls — eight in all — including the Reform Party’s Max Linn, a Treasure Island financial planner who reportedly spent close to two million dollars of his nearly $16-million fortune while polling a relatively meager 1.9 percent in a bid for the state’s highest office.

It remains to be seen if Floridians will continue their nearly century-long indifference to candidates outside the traditional parties.

Then again, as Gov. Crist said recently, “Things change.”

Read more about third party politics on Darcy's blog Uncovered Politics.

7 Responses »

  1. do the right thing charlie - quit!!!!!!!!

  2. Recall Jack Echerd race for the Senate in 1974 - good man. Grady the spoiler. Newspapers and polls showed Echerd winning and thus, I believe, caused some to vote for Grady feeling that Eckerd had it won.

    "Ethanol Charlie" has caused this old man to have to haul non-ethanol from the local marina for his old outboard, "Hurricane Charlie" raided this old man's Florida Retirement System to fund his hurricane insurance scheme. "Property Tax Charlie" didn't lower this old man's property tax one cent.
    "Felon-Loving Charlie" restored the voting right of ex-felons who had "paid their debts to society" and probably canceled out this old man's vote. (Notice he didn't restore their gun rights - perhaps some of them might just run up some more "debts".) Only two other politicians in my life have come close to personally causing me as much trouble as Gov. Charlie has. He needs to go off into retirement. (Hopefully, out of state!)

  3. DO YOU PEOPLE really WANT Republicans back in power? I regularly have to ask Republicans/Conservatives what is IT they WANT!

    1) You do not like big government but government grows under Republican rule.
    2) You do not want government in your lives but you like the “show me your papers” law in AZ.
    3) You do not like Wall St. but you want to keep them unregulated so they can FINISH the job of ruining our economy.
    4) You chant “Drill Baby Drill” but think Oil Companies should NOT be responsible for SPILLS and let the government take care of the environmental disasters.
    5) Conservatives despise illegal aliens but hire them on a regular basis. Right-wing chicken hawks get off on WAR but you let your children/grandchildren PAY FOR IT.
    5 and a half, lol) You people demonize gays but Larry Craig’s men’s room was the most popular attraction of the 2008 Republican National Convention and gay porn sells best in Red States.
    6) You hate taxes but love Reagan even though Reagan/Bush RAISED taxes. On & on & on…

    What the #*~/? Can you blame Progressives for thinking Republicans/Conservatives are corrupt, mental deficient hypocrites?

    Not since the WWII has a population been so damn messed up. The Germans and Italians had an excuse for embracing corporate, police state Fascism. They didn’t have any history of such political abominations to learn from. However the Republicans/Conservatives have the examples of Mussolini/Hitler to examine. SO TELL ME PLEASE WHY you’d put SO much wealth and power in a Corporate owned police state?

    (Ask John McCain why the Energy Department is involved with so many military projects in AZ instead of working on new tech and alternative sources)

    Funny how the news media jumped on this Arizona immigration law story but completely IGNORED the following: John McCain and the Republicans seem to be leading the charge toward a police state:

    S.3081 - Enemy Belligerent, Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act of 2010 proposed by Senators Lieberman and McCain “…removes the right to trial for American Citizens and gives government the AUTHORITY to detain Americans INDEFINITELY for SUSPECTED TERRORIST ACTIVITY…”

    The really IMPORTANT thing about this Act is just WHO defines SUSPECTED ACTIVITY? I’m sure the CRIMINALS and CONS who oversaw the recent economic meltdown (or what I like to call greatest looting of a nation’s wealth and resources in the history of mankind) FEEL THREATENED by the ACTIVITY involved with calls for JUSTICE.

    Republicans know DEMANDS for ethics, responsibility and accountability are going to come down HARD on them. Especially McCain/Lieberman who’ve been covering up Banking/Financial/Wall St SCANDALS since the 80’s. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what comes next…


    “THE Devil knew not what he did when he made man politic…”

  4. SPO101, it is obvious that you are not a genius. You are just another Demoncrat who wants to re-write history.

  5. Look again. Florida has become quite friendly to third parties, as witness the 16% of the vote in 2002 for the Libertarians after they led the 1998 ballot changes.

    Unfortunately, that party is splitting apart after getting the right-wing extremist mole disease killing the party and also the GOP nationally. The state GOP extremist fruitcake brigade recently decided it was easier to change laws so they could more easily infiltrate and over-run the Libertarian Party with new "Libertarians" and run kook "flat-tax" and anti-immigration candidates, or none at all. One candidate changed her registration from GOP to Libertarian the day before signing up and issuing an anti-Libertarian diatribe. The GOP extremists want the Libertarians running zip or fringe candidates in 2012, when petition requirements are relaxed, and meantime making nice noises about GOP positions while silent on Libertarian issues like medical marihuana, protecting our shores from oil drilling, tax abolition, and more.

    The Greens went through this sort of attack a few years ago and are mired in lawsuits. Now its the Libertarians turn. This year they've gone from occupying 60 political offices to maybe 15 as people leave or are hounded out by the National and State Executive Committees who send GOP bullyboys to disrupt meetings or purge officers. I've also attended meetings with the "new" people openly saying they've been told to overrun the "anarchist" Libertarians and shut them down with encouragement from the national office. One even laughed about how he had done the same to the Greens. People call the elections people and they say the law is written so the only recourse is a lawsuit, which of course would really destroy what's left. I called to leave the Libertarian Party and discovered I, a longtime member, had already been purged by "losing" my membership due to a "computer error" that got rid of long-time local members. They set up a "new" affiliate where I was, simply ignoring the old club, with people whose main job seemed to be telling newcomers how bad and lazy the "old" Libertarians were and they were "anarchists" who had done nothing since 1971 and wouldn't run "respectable" candidates (at least one of their candidates is a convicted criminal), and we should join the Libertarian Reform Caucus PAC (below) and join the Tea Parties and really vote for Rubio. When I complained about my lost membership, they said that proved how "disorganized" troublemakers like me were. The national officers I contacted said I should stop attacking "real" Libertarians and learn to work with the GOP. Neat trick.

    The Florida Libertarian Party is the stroinget state party, but it's splitting apart as Libertarians leave a cadre of GOP kooks behind, and so will go the rest of the Libertarian Party at this rate. A lot of people feel the real story is about not just about these shenanigans and so why most of the Libertarians in public office who don't want to be identified with these people have drifted away, but also about who's subsidizing the phony Libertarian (and Green!) candidates with anti-Libertarian or anti-Green positions, about a Libertarian Reform Caucus PAC with supposedly 3000 mostly GOP members out to control and "reform" the Libertarian Party in a growing reign of intimidation and misrepresentation of its history and goals, about why the platforms have been re-written with GOP executive members somehow on the platform committees, about the unanswered questions on GOP chair's Greer's accounts and their role in all this, about why an onslaught of paper Libertarian county affiliates are purging long-time Libertarians while calling on people to not vote Libertarian, why a candidate for national Libertarian Chair flew across the country to give a pep talk at an illegally called convention where party-regular Libertarians were threatened with arrest if they showed up, about runored growing violations of the election and finance reporting laws that will leave the party in shambles even if the Libertarians regain control, and why Libertarians say a pro-Rubio boyfriend of Jeb Bush's daughter is suddenly the head of the Florida Libertarian Party after a convention packed with GOP stooges while local affiliates are told they will not get national party recognition without his permission.

    The Libertarian Party, with 16% of the vote, was on its way to building a political center. Now it's stalled with candidates late of the GOP who say every American should have its own social worker and suggest party founders such as David Nolan and sympathizers such as Republican Ron Paul are out to destroy "real" freedom. Why? I say look there.

  6. Tomorrow will an interesting day in politics further thrusting the GOP into the national discussion and if the leaks are correct, the so-called 11th Commandment of Reagan may cease to exist for our Governor.

  7. Anybody remember what happened to the Democrats when they lost power...did the party leave the people-and take a hard left?